Best Practice

Employee communications and the coronavirus: What you need to know.

The coronavirus has been a personal tragedy for thousands and a disaster for China, but it’s also been – and continues to be – massively disruptive for business around the world. 

On the one hand, it’s causing grief, heartbreak, and fear, and on the other, turmoil for business and employees. 

As this disruption is likely to last for months, companies are either grappling to deal with the practical fallout of the outbreak, in terms of business continuity and employee welfare, or planning for how to cope if they are impacted. 

And organizations that are not actively considering the latter are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach they could regret.

Communication is key to how businesses deal with the outbreak, whether or not they are currently impacted. Waiting to respond until something has happened is not an option.

Over 24 countries outside China have now reported coronavirus infections and there have been warnings that this could be higher due to underreporting in countries with weaker health-care systems, such as South East Asia and Africa.

Even in countries where no infections have been reported, businesses are taking precautionary action and relying on Internal Communications and HR playing a key role.

Employee communication strategies need to be in place and should be multifaceted using all available channels, with the ability to target specific communications for specific audiences and measure impact and outcomes.

As Gartner’s Group Vice President, Brian Kropp stressed, being prepared and ready to act is critical. “HR leaders can’t wait for a crisis to develop to start responding. You need answers now to questions you’ll face”, he said.

A case in point is Ireland, where there’s been no infection so far. Its capital, Dublin, might be over 9,000km from the virus epicenter in Wuhan, but this week the job search company Indeed ordered its employees to work from home, after a colleague in Singapore reported that relatives may have been exposed.

Indeed also closed its offices in Sydney and Singapore as a precaution. But excellent crisis planning and communications, coupled with the ability of its 1,000  employees to work remotely, meant Indeed was able to report that its business continued uninterrupted across the globe.

But would your company be similarly equipped if a colleague returning from business or holiday travel abroad fell ill and was suspected of having the coronavirus? Or worse, if it was confirmed they had it? How would you deal with it and what would be your response to other colleagues?

What are your crisis management and business continuity plans? Are they up-to-date and are the right people properly familiar with them? 

Are HR and Internal Comms adequately prepared to deal with the myriad issues that an outbreak would produce? Are there preventative measures in place?

As has been pointed out, it’s important to keep things in perspective and not panic, but given the infectious nature of the virus, experts advise it’s wise for organizations to be prepared in case they have to deal with the fallout of an infection. A helpful read is John Alderman’s recent acclaimed blog for Poppulo, Three Communications Lessons For Managing A Crisis.

Gartner says the top priority for HR is to put people first, and lessons should be learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003. “When SARS spread to four continents, executives at several companies told us that managing employees’ concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming associated activities,” said Brian Kropp.

“Employees worry about more than their physical safety, they worry about the potential disruptions to their work, and wonder how the organization plans to manage its operations.”

Earlier this week, the technology giant Intel issued a stakeholder communication relating to the coronavirus that could be used as a template for how it should be done.

Beginning with: ‘We want you to know that we are doing everything we can to both protect workers and visitors and minimize the risk of disruption to our business”, it went on to outline how Intel had set up an internal cross-organizational group called the Pandemic Leadership Team (PLT), meeting daily and closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation.

The statement outlined the measures it was taking to protect employees, and what it expected of suppliers and subcontractors. You can read the full statement here.

Gartner advises that “to ensure employees, shareholders and other stakeholders believe an organization is prepared to handle a crisis: companies should be able to answer these 10 questions:

  1. Can our company operate at 25% or greater absenteeism?
  2. If illness causes high absenteeism, are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties?
  3. Can our employees work remotely?
  4. What infrastructure support is needed to support a shift to an at-home workforce
  5. Will our company monitor, or even restrict, travel to high-risk regions?
  6. What procedures do we have in place to decontaminate the facility and its heating, ventilation, air-conditioning systems, electronic equipment, and soft materials?
  7. What assurances do we need to provide to the facility staff members so they feel safe at work?
  8. How will traveling employees be brought home, particularly if they are sick?
  9. Are there escalation procedures to get additional resources?
  10. Is there a trained and representative crisis-management team that includes on-call staff, and do those team members know what is expected?

This is a time when the value of effective employee communication and the technology that enables it, such as Poppulo, comes into its own.  Not only must Internal Comms and HR ensure they collaborate closely to keep employees fully informed and answer their questions, they also need to be capable of dealing with misinformation and rumor-mongering of internet trolls.

Viruses have always led to the spread of rumors, sparking needless panic, but this is now routinely turbo-charged by social media. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there and some of it can be quite dangerous,” said the World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove, referring to the coronavirus outbreak. 

This is a view echoed by Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta. “Social media is a polarization machine where the loudest voices win. In an outbreak, where you want accurate, measured discourse, that’s kind of a worst-case scenario,” he said.

Kate Ledwidge of Personnel Today cautioned against fear-driven behavior as well as the need to communicate a clear message to the workforce.

“Behind the scenes, it is sensible to take practical steps such as ensuring there is a good remote working system in place, just in case, giving managers extra training and guidance, and centrally monitoring absence levels to pick up on unusual patterns,” she said.

The clear messages that she said need to be communicated to employees include:

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